The 21st century is a mess, a car boot sale of the stylistic bric-a-brac of decades that are no longer gone but insistently remain, cluttering up the present with their second-hand associations; the orange plastics of a white-hot optimism that now seems misplaced, the kilo sale plaid of grunge’s North American bourgeois angst.

As the flood tides of the 2020s ebb and recede, so particular signifiers stand out among the washed-up flotsam, speaking more directly to the present moment than the flammable factory-bred fibres of the 1970s or the loose fits of the 1990s. Even as some of its prime sites are torn down to make way for the empty mirrors of glass that efface character from the skyline, giving every city a veneer of interchangeability, Brutalism chimes with the times, fitting it like a second grey skin.

Indeed, the blankness of its concrete faces make the perfect backdrop for the projection of a range of moving pictures, showing newsreels of utopias compromised by human shortcomings and cheap cement, or videos of a particularly synthesised political pop, sampling the sounds of industry to rail on behalf of those left behind by its absence, as, once again, the nation is lectured on the necessity of thrift by those who have never, and will never, know want. Brutalism’s often beautiful austerity somehow rises above the cruelty of its economic counterpart.

Béton at The Modernist, Manchester.

The accumulated weight is a heavy load for a boutique exhibition, displayed behind the green door of The Modernist‘s Port Street Manchester hub, to bear. That Béton does so, and in a manner that sets itself at one remove from the likes of Mandy Payne and Jen Orpin, other artists who approach the Brutalist movement in British architecture from the direction of their chosen B roads and shopping precincts, is testimony to the quiet singularity of Olivia Turner’s approach. Even their titles, derived seemingly from postal codes, set them apart, their alphanumeric strings lending them something of the quality of the dystopian science fictions of the 1970s, such as the pre-Star Wars George Lucas’s THX-1138, when the future was always a bleaker allegory for the unsatisfactory present.

The works themselves are abstractions, developed by Turner from photographic references and drawings, which pluck the constructions they portray from their contexts, reducing them to the rhythm of their forms, unfolding the collapse of their once-new buildings into a revised blueprint in all the shades of fading grey. Beneath the appeal of their surface, like the cathode screen television in Poltergeist, there’s a haunted quality that draws the viewer deeper in.

While the separate paintings are thematically of a piece, each is distinct in itself. Broadly speaking, moreover, there seem to be two distinctive strains in Turner’s approach. The larger frames, exemplified by S86 5EY, have the quality of reconstructions, as though the original, demolished in a controlled explosion, had been captured at the moment of detonation, like a sculpture by Cornelia Parker, before being rebuilt and twisted into new geometries. Bent out of shape, across their remodelled planes the oblique primary colour slashes, all Stanley knife thin, are allowed to make their mark. The smaller canvases, like SW9 8DS, are more ghost-like. In their muted monochromes the details of the buildings persist, whether in the form of a balcony or the swoop of an external staircase, but they are already disappearing from view, fading like a more melancholy manifestation of the Cheshire Cat.

Béton at The Modernist, Manchester.

Like the bedroom art on the white walls of an analogue keyboard player before the 80s coked itself up, Béton is a niche of contained anti-nostalgia. Right now, it makes a lot of sense.

By Desmond Bullen


Olivia Turner’s Béton exhibition is open until December 24, 2022 at Th Modernist in Manchester. For more information, please click here.